JS: It’s strange to be asked about my PhD thesis, because it truly feels like another life. I can hardly remember what it was about. It was a real hodge-podge. I wrote a lot about Benjamin, or rather, about Benjamin’s conceptions of language and his theory of translation, and I guess I tried to suggest that translation can constitute a form of experimental writing that is oriented towards ethics and care rather than identity, the ego and the concept. I was lucky that Australian PhDs don’t have to be defended, because I don’t think I would have been willing to defend a great deal of what I wrote in there, but I think I still do believe in the notion that the practice of translation suggests a form of radical care and a form of writing against the self. Despite my own ambivalence about the work, I was going to publish it in book form, but ultimately decided not to, firstly because academic publishing is a racket that really does need to be abolished in anything like its current form, but more crucially, because while I was beginning work on the book version, I got the contract to translate Volume II of The Aesthetics of Resistance. And essentially, I chose one poorly paid endeavour over an even more poorly paid one.
More importantly, though, translating The Aesthetics was something that excited me much more, and which seemed more meaningful and urgent. And perhaps that’s a way in which my translation theory influenced me, in that I felt that caring for the language of this work was more worthwhile than making my thesis into a text that I would be able to identify with publicly. It seemed very much a moment of new fascisms everywhere, Trump, the alt-right, Bolsonaro, Alternative für Deutschland, and back home, Peter Dutton’s half-rendered head lurking in the shadows like an animated nightstick. We need manuals for revolt and remembrance. And at the heart of The Aesthetics is a crushing desire to commemorate the dead in order to facilitate revolutionary hope. It is dedicated not just to the organised, clandestine resistance to fascism during the thirties and forties, but to all the victims, and to the entire history of resistance, and so we constantly have these sort of flashbacks to antiquity and to medieval popular rebellions and to their representations in the history of art, as well as to the history of the workers’ movement in the twentieth century. This notion of commemoration makes me think of your work as well.
I wasn’t familiar with Dictee (which, I found out when I went to order it, is being released in a new edition in September 2022!), but when reading about it I was so disturbed to find out that Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was murdered. And it made me think of Ana Mendieta, and about how you could restructure the whole history of art around women who’ve been murdered or driven to suicide, how the whole constellation of history is missing the majority of its points. But then, when I think about your work (and also The Aesthetics), it’s not just about re-plotting the “special” coordinates, the exceptional artists, the party leaders, and so on, it’s also the nameless masses, buried, burned, effaced, that the darkness of the sky is actually brimming with stars. I’m thinking here of your ‘Diary of Return’ and the women killed by American GIs in Korea, or ‘The Orphans’ in DMZ Colony, about the survivors of the Sancheong–Hamyang massacre, where I feel like the surviving orphans—themselves nearly drowned out by history—kind of index all the victims of the massacre. The orphans allow us to remember the dead.
Looking over those poems just now, I found this line of yours, which I think echoes what I was trying to get at, and might be a good point to end on: ‘My decision to translate the girls’ stories wasn’t entirely mine alone. It can take billions of years for light to reach us through the galaxies, which is to say, History is ever arriving. So it’s most likely that the decision, seemingly all mine, was already made years ago by someone else, which is to say, language—that is to say, translation—always arises from collective consciousness.’